Looked-after pupils' support 'frequently' broke down

Report into deaths of 61 children highlights impact when 'a school ceased to act as a protective factor in their lives'

Henry Hepburn

Looked-after pupils' support 'frequently' breaks down

The support for vulnerable looked-after children has "frequently" broken down in the early part of secondary school, according to a new report.

The Care Inspectorate report examines the deaths of 61 care-experienced children and young people in Scotland from 2012 to 2018, 42 of whom were under 18 when they died. 

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"The education of these looked-after young people was fraught with difficulty," the report states. "The impact of their emotional distress in school became increasingly concerning during primary school years.

"Despite this, staff worked extremely hard to keep them within mainstream schooling assisted by a strong empathy with the child’s circumstances and successful approaches to nurturing. However, things frequently broke down for these young people in secondary school, typically in S1 and S2, resulting in a pattern of school exclusions associated with unacceptable behaviour."

As a result, many of these young people were not in full-time education for "significant periods of time".

Of the 42 under-18s who died, 16 had a life-shortening condition or terminal illness; 12 deaths were "unexpected…due to misadventure" or  "unexplained"; and 14 deaths were associated with "risk-taking behaviours which culminated in an untimely death".

The report states: "When a school ceased to act as a protective factor in their lives, concerns about their safety and wellbeing escalated with many then being placed in very costly resources including residential schools, close-support units and secure accommodation.

"The attendance rates of those who remained in secondary school diminished, sometimes markedly, as they got older. As a result, they did not always achieve a positive and sustained school-leaver destination.

"The focus on these young people’s behaviour often overshadowed additional learning needs and attainment. "

The report adds: "The question arises as to whether more of these young people could have been sustained, not necessarily within their class, but within the wider school community.

"In recent years, a great deal of effort has gone into reducing school exclusions amongst care-experienced young people. While trends are improving, school exclusion rates among looked-after young people at secondary school continue to be disproportionate to rates of school exclusion for the child population.

"Non-attendance at secondary school for whatever reason also meant that these young people did not have access to school-based services such as counselling and school nurse drop-in consultation."

The report also notes the efforts made by some school staff to support looked-after children with a life-shortening condition or terminal illness who were frequently absent from school. Those pupils "appreciated the opportunity to continue with their learning if they felt able to do so, for example online".

The report adds that other pupils "missed the social side of schooling and approaches to maintaining contact with their peer group and involvement in school activities helped them to maintain a positive mental attitude".

It also notes that some children and young people had an individualised education plan, while a few had a coordinated support plan. In general, it was "evident that [they] were experiencing tailored and very well-planned learning opportunities including those attending special schools".

Overall, the report concludes that the young people’s deaths could not be attributed directly to the actions or inactions of services but that the evaluation "nonetheless identified some important learning points".

Peter Macleod, chief executive of the Care Inspectorate, said: “The death of a care-experienced child or young person is always traumatic for families, friends, carers and staff. Each death has a far-reaching impact on all those striving to improve the wellbeing and life chances of this vulnerable group in our society.  

“While we can reach no statistically valid conclusions as the numbers of deaths are so small, the experiences of these children and young people, their carers and the staff providing them with help and support provide us with valuable learning and good practice examples that merit wider dissemination. 

“This report aims to support our collective endeavours to improve outcomes for care-experienced children and young people.” 

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Henry Hepburn

Henry Hepburn

Henry Hepburn is the news editor for Tes Scotland

Find me on Twitter @Henry_Hepburn

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